Article by Julia Medew in The Age, May 31, 2011.
Health Minister David Davis has backed down from a plan for Victorian sex workers to have fewer tests for sexually transmitted infections, prompting sharp criticism from public health experts who say the plan should go ahead.
Last week, a Department of Health project officer told a health and sex work conference the government had approved a move from monthly to three-monthly tests for sex workers in the regulated industry from September.
Legal sex workers applauded the move, saying monthly testing was unnecessary as they always used protection.But a spokeswoman for Mr Davis said that although he had received a proposal for three-monthly testing, he would not approve it.
“The minister has currently not been persuaded that the proposed changes are appropriate,” she said.
Health and human rights experts said it was ridiculous to force sex workers to have monthly tests when they were at extremely low risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
Three Australian studies have found that about one in every six men admit to having paid for sex at least once.
Professor of Sexual Health at Melbourne University, Christopher Fairley, said research showed monthly testing was unnecessary and a waste of public health resources because sex workers have much lower rates of STIs than other people.
This was backed by a recent study of patients at the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre which showed that of 2896 female sex workers tested for STIs over three years, only 3 per cent were positive.
In contrast, the study found that 41 per cent of 4208 STIs diagnosed at the clinic over the three years were in men having sex with men.
“You are at lower risk of catching an STI if you have sex with a sex worker than if you have sex with a member of the public,” Professor Fairley said.
Professor Fairley said the monthly testing of legal sex workers also meant doctors were turning away thousands of patients seeking STI tests each year because they were tied up with low risk sex workers.
He said about 1200 people could not be tested at the centre in the first quarter of this year because it was tied up with monthly sex worker tests.
If the government approved three-monthly tests, he said the centre could see another 3000 patients a year who are likely to be at much higher risk of STIs.
Director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Bebe Loff, said she was astonished the Victorian Government was insisting on monthly tests, given the principles of informed consent in medicine and human rights to privacy and bodily integrity.
“Any basic ethics course stresses the value of informed consent. It’s stressed not just to protect the health care workers but because there are things achieved through that process. It provides a supportive environment where patients can freely discuss their concerns,” Associate Professor Loff said.
The founder of the Australian Prostitutes Collective, Cheryl Overs, said monthly testing was a waste of resources and could lead to more demands for unprotected sex because consumers presumed all sex workers were “clean”.
She said that having frequent sex did not mean sex workers wanted to offer their bodies up to doctors more often than was necessary.
“Sex workers are just like everyone else, they don’t like getting up on the couch. We all hate it, don’t we?” she said.